Genealogists are obsessed with the longevity of stored data – and for good reasons. We depend upon old records, and most of us wish to save today’s records for several more centuries. That includes the genealogy records we store in our computers. Floppy disks don’t last all that long, CD-ROM disks only last a little bit longer, and even paper produced today will be unreadable within 50 to 100 years. Then there is the problem of “disappearing” ink used in today’s inkjet printers and the toner used in laser printers that starts to fade within a very few years.
Several solutions have been created but have gained little acceptance amongst genealogists. M-Disks should last for 1,000 years (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M-DISC for details) while sapphire disks should be able to store terabytes of information for several million years. (See my earlier article at http://goo.gl/ZAA0BD for information about sapphire disks.) The problem is that the technology is great, but few people have ever purchased these devices.
Now researchers have found a way to store the entirety of the world’s history on tiny slivers of quartz, not much larger than a quarter. Forever. Yes, forever. Well, at least for 14 billion years, and that is close enough to forever to meet my needs. The technology to do this is available here and now. The question is: “Will anyone buy it?”
Researchers at the Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) of Southampton University in the UK have improved upon a process first announced four years ago, whereby femtosecond laser pulses are used to inscribe binary data on nano-structured quartz crystals. Back in early 2012, the slivers were capable of storing 40 MB per square inch – about the same as a CD – for a period of 300 million years. Today’s breakthrough ups those numbers to 360 terabytes (360,000,000 megabytes) of data for 14 billion years.
The disks are waterproof, can withstand heat up to 1000 degrees Fahrenheit or the cold of interstellar space, and have a “virtually unlimited lifetime at room temperature (13.8 billion years at 19°C)”. Details are available at http://www.southampton.ac.uk/news/2016/02/5d-data-storage-update.page.
The technology could be highly useful for organizations with big archives, such as national archives, museums and libraries, to preserve their information and records. Obviously, individuals also could use long-term storage capabilities even if they cannot fill the disk with information.
The tiny discs, which are smaller than a half dollar, are only a few millimeters thick and presumably quite cheap. After all, they are simply quartz discs, and quartz can be rather cheap. Data is written on the disks by a laser, which isn’t so cheap but isn’t much different from lasers in CD-ROM, DVD, and Blu-Ray disk drives that are selling today for less than $100. The first few devices to record 360 terabytes on a quartz disk will probably be expensive, but that price should drop dramatically if these things become popular.
Professor Peter Kazansky from the ORC says: “It is thrilling to think that we have created the technology to preserve documents and information and store it in space for future generations. This technology can secure the last evidence of our civilization: all we’ve learnt will not be forgotten.”
Actually, an expected lifespan of 14 billion years might mean we have to find a new home for this data before “the end of time.” After all, the sun is expected to die roughly five billion years from now. What will we do then?